Tethering all truth claims to physical evidence

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … all demonstrable truths
  • Knowing is … experience-based awareness
  • Learner is … an experiencer, inquirer
  • Learning is … deriving truth from experience
  • Teaching is … formatting experiences


Ancient (but the most influential formalized versions began to appear in the 1600s)


Empiricism is more commonly understood as a theory of knowledge than a theory of learning, but the line is often blurred in discussions of education. Empiricism states that knowledge comes from sensory experience, and thus emphasizes the role of experience and evidence. The “hard” version of Empiricism is associated with rigorous scientific research, and the “softer” versions are often encountered in theories of learning that emphasis inquiry, exploration, sense-making, and argumentation. Many varieties of Empiricism have been developed, including:
  • Aristotelianism (Aristotole, 300s BCE) – subject to quite varied definitions that tend to agree on two key elements: the truth is out there, and it can be reached through careful definition, observation, and demonstration
  • Baconian Method (Francis Bacon, late-1500s) – an inductive (see Modes of Reasoning) method of scientific study that involves inferring general principles from specific instances that are studied under controlled conditions. The broad goal of the Baconian Method is to generate “laws” (i.e., principles that are accurate across any instance of a phenomenon under study) that can be used to infer causality.
  • Logical Empiricism (Logical Positivism; Neopositivism; the Vienna Circle, early 1900s) – an attempt to mesh principles of mathematical logic with the conviction that sensory experience is the basis of knowledge, based on two main principles: (1) statements made in everyday language can be parsed into discrete units of meaning; (2) only statements that can be verified through direct experience or logical proof can be deemed truly meaningful
  • Phenomenalism (John Stuart Mill, mid-1800s) – an extreme version asserting that all physical forms are reducible to mental forms – that is, in essence, that physical objects are constructed out of one’s experiences
  • Positivism – the attitude that the highest standard of certainty is scientific fact, which can only be derived through direct experiences of phenomena. Such experience typically includes observation of and experimentation on the phenomenon of interest, coupled with reasoned argument that is attentive to what is known about surrounding and related phenomena.
  • Pragmatism (Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, John Dewey, late-1800s) – an integration of basic insights of experience-based Empiricism with thinking-based Rationalism
  • Probabilism – an umbrella category that reaches across perspectives that (1) accede that empirical science will never have the measuring accuracy or computing power to predict complex phenomena with any useful precision, and so (2) turn to probability and statistics as the most useful and reliable means to discern facticity, make defensible choices, and predict futures. Associated discourses include:
    • Probabilistic Functionalism – the suggestion that agents’ perceptions and actions are essentially probabilistic – that is, selected according to probable success
Constructs associated with Empiricism include:
  • Consilience (Concordance of Evidence; Convergence of Evidence) (coined by William Whewell, 1840s; developed by E.O. Wilson, 1990s) – the conviction that empirical evidence from diverse sources should converge on the same conclusions, bolstering those conclusions in the process (that is, rendering them more “scientific”). Consilience is founded on the assumption that the same fundamental laws underlie all existence.
  • Scientific Method has a range of meanings that coalesce around the project of Empiricism to develop increasingly powerful and useful interpretations of phenomena. Varying somewhat from one branch of science to another, common aspects of the Scientific Method across all domains are careful observation and rigorous skepticism. Within branches of inquiry that involve experimentation, the Scientific Method is typically defined to include the formulation of hypotheses, conducting of controlled interventions, and generation of replicable results. In popular terms – and especially prominent in contemporary school science – the Scientific Method is often reduced to a simplistic and rigid, step-by-step procedure that more resembles a recipe than engaged inquiry. (Contrast: Rational Decision Making, under Rationalism.)
  • Scientific Rationality – sometimes considered synonymous with Positivism, but more often used to describe an attitude – that is, as a reference to the qualities and standards associated with empirical inquiry (which, notably, vary across academic domains that claim to be oriented by a Scientific Rationality)


One of the complexities of Empiricism is an associated rejection of knowledge from divine,  mystical, or spiritual sources. The same rejection underpins some (perhaps surprising) associated discourses – ones that locate “truth” and “goodness” in the intentions and consequences of actions, not woven in the fabric of the universe – including:
  • Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham, early 1800s) – a worldview that might be said to operate on the maxim, “The greatest good for the greatest number.” That is, an act is justified if it maximizes pleasure or benefit. The same premise underlies the following discourses:
    • Eudemonism – either (1) the perspective that what brings happiness (“eudemonia”) is what is good, or (2) the belief that people will act in ways that bring them happiness. Utilitarianism is a Eudemonism in the first sense; Psychoanalytic Theories, Humanisms, and Behaviorisms are Eudemonisms in the second sense.
    • Hedonism – the doctrine that pleasure is inherently good – and, thus, the pursuit of pleasure is appropriate and good
    • Hedonistic Psychology – a descriptor applied to any theory that suggests that pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain are the only major motivations for human behavior
Some are troubled at the suggestion that modern science shares common ground with the above discourses. Others take that realization as a starting place for thinking more broadly about the construct of “science”:
  • State-Specific Science (Charles Tart, 1970s) ­– oriented by a recognition that highly intelligence people can reject science, the suggestion that it might be appropriate to consider multiple conceptualizations of that are fitted to various states of consciousness
The above matters shine some light on a struggle we faced in locating  Empiricism on our landscape of learning theories. “Science” is taken up in many different ways – sometimes as a description of individual learning, sometimes as a source of advice for teaching, sometimes as an argument for standardized practices, sometimes as a source of data to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of standardized education … and so on. Our placement of Empiricism on the map is thus based on a difference in meaning between empiricist (pointing to a belief system) and empirical (signalling the existence of tangible evidence). The belief system has traditionally been articulated in manners consistent with Correspondence Discourses, whereas the expectation of tangible evidence is much more strongly articulated among Coherence Discourses.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Aristotle; John Locke; Francis Bacon; George Berkeley; David Hume

Status as a Theory of Learning

Empiricism is a theory of knowledge and knowledge production, and it is typically discussed at the level of entire fields of study. It has also been applied to individual learning, and many contemporary learning theories assume that the exploratory, sense-making activities of young learners are essential empirical – that is, they are very much processes of gathering, integrating, and generalizing from experiences. For that reason, it is fair to say that Empiricism has been engaged by many educators as a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Often, when Empiricism is invoked as a perspective on learning in education, it is in contexts focusing on influencing learning – in particular, through active, experience-focused, exploration-oriented activities. Concisely, then, within education, Empiricism is frequently engaged as a theory of influencing learning.

Status as a Scientific Theory

It might seem circular to argue that Empiricism is scientific. However, given the differences in meaning between empiricist and empirical, we have not afforded it full scientific status. Many versions and treatments of Empiricism are simply inattentive to assumptions and figurative frames. In fact, somewhat ironically, some treatments are inattentive to empirical evidence demonstrating issues with their interpretations.


  • Aristotelianism
  • Baconian Method
  • Consilience (Concordance of Evidence; Convergence of Evidence)
  • Eudemonism
  • Hedonism
  • Hedonistic Psychology
  • Logical Empiricism
  • Phenomenalism
  • Pragmatism
  • Probabilism
  • Probabilistic Functionalism
  • Scientific Method
  • Scientific Rationality
  • State-Specific Science
  • Utilitarianism

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Empiricism” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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